In comes Baltimore, winners of four of the last five matchups against Denver and 4-0 in the 2006 campaign. This is a team the Broncos have historically struggled against and last year's 12-10 win over the injury-riddled Baltimoreans tells us absolutely nothing about this year's Ravens team.
Coaches Brian Billick and Mike Shanahan have basically built these two squads from the ground up, and for the most part, they are built similarly and rely on the same sort of game plan to get wins. Shanahan has struggled against the Ravens and the last time these two teams played on Monday night football the Broncos were embarrassed. Anyone remember Jason Elam's field goal before halftime that was returned 109 yards for a TD?
The Broncos come fresh off the bye week and the Ravens come off a final-drive win against the Chargers in Baltimore. The Broncos play terrible on national television (excluding the win against the Pats) and seem to crumble when they wear the alternate jerseys. Hopefully we will be seeing the traditional colors on Monday night.
When Denver has the ball:
Tatum Bell has been lobbying hard to be the featured running back in the Broncos' offense. It would seem as though he got his wish when last Sunday night he carried the ball 27 times for 123 yards during the 17-7 win in New England.
Unfortunately for Bell, he is taking on one of the best, if not the best, run defenses in the NFL. Baltimore is physical and loves to pound running backs over the course of the game and make them run soft towards the latter stages of the game, something Shanahan has worried about with Tatum Bell.
Denver's most physical back, Cedric Cobbs, will be held out again with a sprained ankle leaving the two Bells (Tatum and Mike) to carry the load. This will be the most crucial part of the Broncos offensive attack. It will be interesting to see if Tatum can keep his focus after the early hits and run hard as the game wanes on.
It will also be interesting to watch the rookie Mike Bell try to keep his composure under the Monday night lights, as he looks into the eyes of NFL legend Ray Lewis.
The best thing the Broncos can do to keep the pressure off their running backs is play action passing against the 4-3 (sometimes 3-4 hybrid) defense of Baltimore. Lewis, Terrell Suggs (questionable), Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott are all quick linebackers who love to rush the line. If they start licking their chops every time the Bells touch the ball it could be a long night for the Broncos offense.
Although the bootleg has rarely been used and hardly effectively this year, it is important to keep it in the arsenal this week. Running tosses and plays towards Trevor Pryce, Suggs (when he's not at LB) and Jarrett Johnson at the end positions will force that defense to spread out a bit and open up running lanes off the tackles later in the game.
Although running towards the edge against a fast defense is hardly gain worthy in the early stages of the contest, it pays dividends later on. Running outside also forces Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg to run repetitive 10 yard wind sprints towards the sideline every so often. Hopefully, this can help wear the big guys down and give our undersized lineman an advantage, leading to some interior rushing success later in the game. The Broncos worked this strategy to perfection against the Redskins last year and eventually won on a toss to Tatum Bell late in the 4th quarter.
Most of the time when quarterback Jake Plummer drops back he's going to see man to man coverage on the outside with the safeties shifting over the top towards Walker's side. At least one linebacker will be coming with pressure and the other three will be zoned underneath. Plummer is going to have to play a somewhat cerebral game to recognize exactly what Billick's defense is throwing at him.
Look for some underneath quick slants towards the side that the linebackers are blitzing from, and maybe later in the game a slant and go pattern over the top. The Cleveland Browns did a great job of this two weeks ago. They had one pass play for more than five yards heading into the second quarter, but were able to get those corners cheating up and eventually Braylon Edwards was able to bring one in for a 58 yard touchdown.
Screens are also another way to offset the blitz, but with a guy like Ray Lewis controlling the middle of the defense it's tough to catch the defense over-pursuing. It is also because of Lewis that the offense should stay away from counter plays that could be blown up in the backfield.
When Baltimore has the ball:
Jamal Lewis doesn't strike fear into the heart of opposing defenses like he once did. He's averaging a meager 3.7 yards per carry and has been a relatively stagnant force on offense this year. However, it is paramount for the Broncos defense to commit to stopping him early on in this matchup. With cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Darrent Williams matching up with Ravens wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton on the outsides, the Broncos can afford to go man to man and allow the linebackers to concentrate on stopping the run.
Edwin Mulitalo, one of Ravens starting guards was lost for the year last week when he tore his tricep muscle. Bringing frequent middle linebacker blitzes will stuff the off-guard plays that Lewis loves to pound away at and it could set up the Ravens with third and long plays that could allow the secondary to go ball-hawking.
Musa Smith provides a change of pace to Lewis but he's not the type of back that you start gameplanning for. Quarterback Steve McNair isn't the scrambling man we once knew him as, but that doesn't mean that his abilities should be ignored. The dangerous thing about bringing those blitzes up the middle is that it allows McNair to scramble towards the outside and buy time for his receivers matched up one-on-one. It also gives tight ends Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox time to work their ways downfield against one of the Broncos' undersized safeties or nickel-backs.
If linebacker Al Wilson happens to be the blitzing back, Ian Gold and DJ Williams have to know where McNair is, and the same is said for the other two no matter which one of the linebackers happens to be in pass rush. The tight ends are going to look to fill open space left by blitzing nickel backs and linebackers, so open field tackling on short patterns will be important.
Basically, Denver works off of a "bend but don't break" philosophy on defense. This week Larry Coyer should be looking to attack often and early. The Ravens' offense lacks the deep ball threat that has hurt the Broncos so badly in the past (think Raiders' Jerry Porter). The defense should look to blitz early and force Baltimore out of their offensive shell in the first two quarters.
McNair has been good early and late in ball games so far in '06. Through the middle of the game, Billick has been relying on the defense to give them good field position and he is then playing very conservatively with the ball. The Broncos should look to play the same game. Stuff the run on first and second, and play for the interception on the long third down plays. The winner of the field position game will put their offense in the best position to grab early points.
Key Matchup: Broncos OTs vs. Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs
Most interesting things to watch:
Will anyone ever throw towards Champ Bailey?
How will Pryce and Mike Anderson react in their first trip back to Invesco?
The loss of a starting guard really hurts a team like the Ravens (look at the Bucs past weeks as an example). They look to control clock and play field position. A lot of that strategy stems from being able to control the interior line game.
With a rookie playing in that middle spot the Broncos should be able to force pressure on McNair up the middle and force him into outside linebacker blitzes, perhaps causing a few quick, careless throws or some sacks. Shanahan gets a win against Billick at home on national television.
Parlay of the Week: Giants (-4) vs. Redskins – A team coming off a bye week against a team coming off an emotional OT win.
Chiefs (-3 ½) at Cardinals – Too much LJ for bad Cards run defense.
T.C. James is a lifelong Broncos fan and a Division II college scout on the East Coast who writes for numerous sports publications. You might recognize James as a frequent poster on our Broncos Hardcore Message Board as "vancejohnson82." You can e-mail James at firstname.lastname@example.org.